Friday, August 25, 2017

Women in tech and James Damore's diversity memo

I work for Google, the following is purely my personal opinion.

I wanted to say something about James Damore’s now-famous diversity memo. I didn’t post sooner as I haven’t had much free time and it requires care. It requires care because it's very easy to read his doc as an innocent attempt to have a discussion and to see him as the victim of a liberal conspiracy. I don't believe either of those to be true. Luckily many people have already written a great deal that I agree with and I will be mostly just refer to them.

There are a bunch of issues.

Is his science correct?

I’d guess some of it is but he has been so selective that it doesn’t really matter. See [Sadedin], [Giglio] (very detailed) and [Economist] who talk about specific studies and also the cherry picking.

Is his argument valid?

I can't find an actual argument in his doc, he just lists off some alleged differences and states that they may be factors in the gender gap. He makes no effort to show that they really are. There is no argument that biology is more important than society or that it's even significant at all. His doc doesn't prove that the current 80-20 split in tech is natural. His arguments also justify the 100-0 split in science in 1800. We have had 1000s of years of institutionalized sexism and while he suggests other causes, he provides no evidence or argument that these other causes matter in comparison to the well-known social problems.

Wasn’t he talking about preference, not ability?

He writes, “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech”. So he was definitely talking about ability, although he did a good job making it seem like he wasn’t.

In my mind, preference and ability are highly related. Much of my ability comes from my preference and vice-versa. It's easier to study something you like and you'll probably like things that you're good at. If I was hiring for a job, given two candidates of equal ability, I would choose the one who likes the subject. Talking about preference just seems like a coded way of talking about ability while maintaining plausible deniability.

Wasn’t he talking about populations, not attacking the women who were already hired by Google?

Negatively stereotyping a group is an attack on every individual in that group, including those who have already proven themselves to be "exceptions". If the stereotype is believed, then every woman has to prove that they are an exception to every new employer, manager, colleague etc, meanwhile men get a free pass. Allowing these ideas to stand unchallenged makes life harder for every woman interested in tech. Propagating these ideas is an attack on every woman interested in tech.

Was he starting a discussion in good-faith?

I don’t think so. The doc does a great job of sounding reasonable but implies things (e.g. that biology is a significant factor) that it really does not justify (see above). Also you would have to be a fool to think that a doc like that would lead to a productive discussion. It is full of direct and indirect attacks on women’s ability and right to work in tech. There’s no need to do any of that if you just want to raise issues with diversity programs. Interestingly, according to [Gable Brown] he comes from a highschool where this kind of trolling-disguised-as-reasonable-argument was widely understood. It was practiced as a sport by some. In their forums, she says that they are discussing his use of well known techniques. It seems unlikely that he would then accidentally deploy those techniques.

Even if the memo raised some legitimate points, it is fundamentally tainted. If you drop a turd into a swimming pool, don't be surprised when nobody wants to race you and you're kicked out of the pool. It doesn't mean you're an awesome swimmer and everyone is afraid to race you. In this case, the pool was about 90% turd.

Can’t we just have this honest conversation?

I think you should be tied up in a sack and thrown in the river. I’m sure neither of us are 100% right but I had a sack tailored to fit you. Maybe you should at least be tied up in it, we can see what happens after that. Anyway, can't we just have this honest conversation? Just have it again and again until hopefully some day you get into the sack? Is this some kind of ideological echo chamber where we can’t have an open, honest discussion about whether I should tie you up in a sack and throw you in the river? Free speech! I’m being oppressed!

As [Danger] points out, some ideas (like “this group of employees is inherently less fit for their role”) cause harm just by being debated openly. Just having the conversation is an existential threat to that group. That doesn't mean they can never be debated but you have to take responsibility for the harm if you do.

Is Google a place where people can express unpopular or conservative opinions safely?

I think so, but I guess I’m part of the dominant ideology. Expressing any view carelessly in Google is a bad idea. There are experts in all sorts of fields who will pop up and correct you. There is definitely a liberal bias but as Stephen Colbert said, reality has a well-known liberal bias. Specifically, reality is constantly changing, it doesn’t care how things used to be, and it doesn’t care what some book or some old white guy says. This makes conservative opinions particularly tricky. They are, by definition, about keeping things how they used to be. They are often justified by appeals to how things used to be, a book or some old white guy. That's really not going to help you at Google.

Specifically, if you want to express the view that some group of people should continue to have a shitty time just like they had in the good old days or that some other group of people should continue to enjoy privilege they haven’t earned, then you’re going to have a bad time. You are not simply offending people, you are attacking them. The spread of your opinion causes direct harm to them in their work and personal lives.

If you haven't been challenged before you may not understand the very real impact of your words and the negative reaction may feel like an attack. You're not being attacked (hopefully), you're just being asked to try to see things from a perspective you would not normally. This can be very uncomfortable. Accepting this perspective may require admitting you've been a jerk for years (hopefully without knowing it). You may have to admit that you have benefited from an unearned privilege (and try to stop taking advantage of it going forward). Many people, even in good jobs, feel like they are barely scraping by. Impostor syndrome is common. Giving up some advantages will feel quite threatening. This is hard to deal with, it may be easier (mentally) to fight it.

If you expressed a poorly thought out liberal/left-wing view at Google you would also have a bunch of people tell you why you're wrong. What you probably won't have is a bunch of people taking it as an attack against them. This is because the conservative view is (almost by definition) the establishment view and the liberal view is anti-establishment. Attacks against the establishment are usually easy to shrug off, if you just ignore them they often go away. If someone published a doc on why men make inferior engineers, I doubt many men would feel the need to take it apart line by line. This opinion is not a incessant, real threat to men. Diversity and un-biasing programs are a threat to the establishment and as we see, result in strong reactions.

Other responses

I also recommend reading [Lee] and [Wojcicki] for examples of what women deal with every day.


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